Monday, September 15, 2014

Lessons from the Life of an Odd Child

I recently took a turn at sharing my life story with my church family.  Fifty-six years in fifty-six minutes.  Two years merited more time than the others:  my junior year of high school -- which turned out to be my last before heading off to early admission to college -- and fifth grade.

Afterward, as I mentally replayed the evening, I realized I had likely failed to convey, or even appreciate myself, the full significance of fifth grade.  And as I teased at my memory, I discovered a fact I had missed:  I think my fifth-grade teacher may have liked me, at least a little!  This is an extraordinary realization.  I was not a well-liked child.  Not by adults; not by my peers.  In fact, by the end of fifth grade, it seemed more people openly despised me than even the more common response of simply overlooking me.

At the beginning of the year, I had a cute and well-liked best friend.  Her father was the pastor of the church where my family was actively involved and we had been best friends since she joined our class in 3rd grade. I knew I was lucky to have her and guarded her friendship with great jealousy, so afraid that she would figure out she could do better and leave me behind.  And she did leave me behind that year.  She and her family moved on to another church and I found myself abandoned and friendless.  We girls had fallen into a pattern of being "mad" at each other, usually expressed by giving someone the silent treatment.  After my friend moved away, all the other girls who had gathered around her subjected me to silence or worse for the rest of the year.  I was an easy target with my hand-me-down clothes and unfashionable shoes and glasses.  I was smart about math and reading and spelling and such.  Not so smart about fifth-grade girl society.  It was a terrible spring.

With a few exceptions.  One was Mr. Self, my first man teacher and favorite teacher ever.  My previous (and subsequent) teachers gave me little notice as a person.  Sure, I was the best student in the class, but I wasn't an attractive child, either in looks or, more importantly, personality.  Rather than attracting good-will from adults, I was either overlooked or perhaps seen as being in need of being "taken down a peg or two" -- too independent, too out-of-step with my classmates, too confident that I was smart and didn't really need their services.  But Mr. Self was kind to me.  He even gave me the lead female role in a play we did, overriding the protests of my classmates and the disgust of the boy forced to be my "husband".  I was quite surprised and pleased, though the fury of my peers took a lot of the pleasure out of the opportunity.

Then came the fateful day.  We were out of the classroom for something and upon returning discovered three desks had been up-ended and their contents dumped on the floor.  I was horrified to realize one of those desks was mine.  Mr. Self had done an unannounced desk inspection and three of us had failed.  The fall-out was there on the floor.  All my clutter and hidden treasures lay exposed to the unfriendly eyes of my classmates.  I thought I would die.  I don't remember crying, but I can't imagine I managed to refrain from doing so.  In fact, there are tears in my eyes even now as I retrieve the memory of that scene from so long ago.

I looked around to see who the other two victims of this cruel teacher trick were.  That would make all the difference in ascertaining the social cost of this horrific scene.  Even being singled out for seeing the school's newly acquired speech therapist was made more tolerable thanks to Deanne Pletcher's lisp.  If a girl as popular as Deanne had to have speech therapy, I could somehow survive it without dying of embarrassment.

Now my eyes rested on Kevin Stroh and his friend Lacy, the impossibly thin boy who was part of us for just that one year and was despised for his bony limbs and slow Texas drawl.  I wouldn't have said then that Kevin was my friend, but looking back now I see we were about as good friends as a boy and girl of that age could be.  He lived closer to me than any of our other classmates and he and his older sister rode to church with my family.  We interacted some away from school, including playing chess some in the summer.  (He moved away a year later and it wasn't until Facebook provided a connection that I learned he went on to become a teacher and to lead a chess club at his school.  That made me feel pretty good, since I may have taught him the game.)

Kevin and Lacy certainly weren't crying as the rest of the class went out for recess, leaving just the three of us to clean up our respective piles of belongings and return them neatly to our desks.  In fact, as they settled down to the task, they seemed to be in good humor.  Soon we were all working and sharing an easy companionship.  And something shifted within me as a realized I was in good company.  They didn't care that I was messy.  After all, they were too. They didn't care what the popular kids thought of me.  They were willing to be my friends.

Although I have four brothers, there was too much tension between us in those years for me to notice the less complicated nature of male relationships.  That recess period was a first step toward learning to appreciate male friendships in a world where I found (and still find) it so very difficult to fit in with typical female social interactions.  In retrospect, it was one of the best things that happened to me that spring of my twelfth year.

Obviously, with 56 minutes to cover 56 years, I didn't spend this much time on the messy desk incident, but as I later dwelt on the memory another part of it slowly surfaced.  I can't be sure how reliable that fuzzy memory is, yet it's there.  It involves Mr. Self drawing me aside and ... but surely not ... apologizing to me, explaining that he didn't expect me to be caught in his messy-desk sweep.  Apparently, when he reached my desk it was too late to stop the process and my desk was too messy to let stand in an obvious show of favoritism.  And he was right.  The last thing I needed that spring was more fuel for my classmates' animosity in the form of being "teacher's pet."

As I look back over the years and examine that faded memory of a teacher who apologized, I am reminded again of why Phil Self is my all-time favorite teacher.  He saw an odd, awkward, girl-child and valued her feelings enough to apologize for humiliating her in front of her peers during that difficult time.  No other adult in my childhood showed that level of perception and concern.  What an amazing gift that apology was!

Thank you, Mr. Self, for dumping my messy desk that day in the spring of 1969.  It turned out to be a far more positive experience than either of us would have expected.

On the other hand, I would appreciate it if you please stay away from my current desks at home and the library where I work.  Despite your efforts, I am still much better at reading, writing, and arithmetic than housekeeping.